International Day of the Girl
Today is the International Day of the Girl, and it marks the beginning of a year-long effort, spearheaded by the United Nations, to spur global attention and action to the challenges and opportunities girls face before, during, and after crises.The world’s 1.1 billion girls are a source of power, energy, and creativity – and the millions of girls in emergencies are no exception.
Many who work with street connected children for the first time perceive children living on the street as in crisis, but it quickly becomes apparent that many young people can make a life for themselves on the streets and go through periods of relative stability. Dangers and risks are never far away however and crisis points can included not having access to food, requiring emergency medical attention or being assaulted by others. Girls’ experiences on the street can be particularly dangerous for many reasons, for example an expectation to trade in sex and being physically weaker.
StreetInvest have been training our partners to work with street connected girls since 2013, when we introduced our Working with Girls module. Girls face particulalr risks on the street because of dangerous cultral norms, such as trading isex and being physically more vuneralbe.
Since then we have trained street workers to develop new means of working with girls who live or work on the streets, across Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone and Tanzania. We are planning our most ambitious Working with Girls training yet in 2017, when 100 street workers will participate in Sierra Leone.
The module focusses on gender dynamics, culture and how these aspects impact on girls being ignored, abused and voiceless in everyday society. For the street workers, this means reflecting on personal prejudices, attitudes and assumptions made about girls generally in their society and specifically girls who are connected to the street and what impact this has on their practice.
From the belief that all girls are sex workers, to those that say “we don’t have any street connected girls in our country” - many assumptions made about street connected girls are over simplified, misinformed and damaging and have a negative effect on how street girls are understood and supported in their communities.
To celebrate the International Day of the Girl, we’re sharing 10 things we have learned about street connected girls on our journey…
- They exist. In many cities, the majority of children in street situations are boys with smaller populations of girls, but in some cities the reverse is true. In Ghana for example, three out of four street connected children are female in Accra and Kumasi also has a larger street girl population.
- But they are often invisible. This can be for many reasons –as they are more likely to engage in commercial sex work, they occupy less visible spaces than boys: bars, guesthouses, even their own private rooms.
- The biggest challenge cited by girls on the street is sexual violence and exploitation. Whist both boys and girls experience sexual, physical and emotional violence, girls consistently report a higher frequency of sexual assault.
- Being safe is as much an emotional state as much as a physical one. A girl in Harare, Tanzania, describes a safe space as somewhere that “you are not discriminated against and you can socialise with other people there and they do not think evil of you.”
- Girls engaged in sex work are often the highest earners among their peers. This can easily lead to becoming trapped in a cycle of unwanted pregnancy and needing more money to support dependants. The cycle spirals as girls who are involved in sex work are often stigmatised and discriminated against in their community and find it difficult to find other work.
- For girls, sexual activity can be traded to meet their basic needs. For example, accessing shelter and finding somewhere ‘safe’ to sleep, be it with a sex client or other street boys. Sexual favours are also used as a strategy to avoid arrest, physical abuse or paying a debt, as well as to obtain food.
- Street connected girls automatically subvert social norms in many societies, as they have to rely on survival techniques more often associated with men and boys: fighting, stealing, substance abuse and begging.
- When a street worker builds a trusting relationship with girl on the street, it can have an even bigger ripple effect than work with street boys. Not only does it positively impact her own wellbeing, supporting her to grow and develop, but as girls are often care givers, a street worker can help her support younger siblings or even her own children too.
- Despite all the challenges they face girls can survive on the streets for as long, or longer than street boys. A street work practitioner told us this could be because in his society, girls were more likely to be protected from violence. The reasons are surely complex and many, but he observed that: “in our experience girls tend to survive and find a better life in the future.”
- Like other street children, one of the biggest challenges that street girls face is that they don’t have an adult in their lives who they can trust. As a young girl from Morocco says: “I don’t tell anyone…I get used to it, if anything troubles me. There is no-one I can really trust so it stays inside me, even if it gets worse that way.
Although a challenging and complex group to work with, we know we can help street girls to improve their lives, a journey that starts with the support and care of a trustworthy adult.